The digital divide became a little wider with Wednesday's announcement by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that it is ending its ongoing legal fight to expand broadband subsidies for low-income individuals. In addition, the FCC will no longer approve applications from companies that want to offer low-income internet broadband service.
In 2015, President Obama had announced a Connect Home initiative to launch in 27 cities to expand high-speed broadband to 275,000 low-income families and nearly 200,000 children across the US as part of the overall Connect America Fund. The initiative was put in place because, while nearly two-thirds of homes in the bottom 20% of low-income individuals had a computer, less than half had internet service. This left parents unable to search for jobs, and children unable to use the internet to do research for their homework, leaving kids unplugged when they go home from school and creating an achievement gap. Information on the Connect America program has been removed from whitehouse.gov.
The Lifeline program, which is separate from the Connect Home initiative, has been in existence for 32 years, and it provides low-income individuals with a $9.25 monthly supplement to subsidize communications services. Last year, the program was expanded to include broadband in addition to phone service. Recipients will still be able to use the subsidy toward broadband service, if they choose, but it is now going to be tougher for ISPs to receive approval to sell the subsidized plans.
The expansion of the program last year allowed ISPs to provide the service without seeking approval from the government of the state in which they operate. Instead, the FCC was able to approve each application from ISPs. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said that only state governments can now approve such applications.
"Twelve states, from Vermont to Wisconsin, are currently challenging the legality of the FCC's order in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit," Pai wrote. "In my view, it would be a waste of judicial and administrative resources to defend the FCC's unlawful action in court. I am therefore instructing the Office of General Counsel to ask the DC Circuit to send this case back to the Commission for further consideration. And the FCC will soon begin a proceeding to eliminate the new federal designation process," Pai said in an FCC statement.
More than 3.5 million Americans are currently receiving subsidized broadband through Lifeline from 259 eligible providers, Pai said in the statement.
There is a discrepancy between the internet access available to low-income individuals versus the accessibility for those with higher incomes. Without internet access, it's difficult to apply for jobs, which is why free internet access and free computer usage in public libraries draws individuals seeking employment. It's also tougher for the children living in low-income families when they cannot use the internet to help with homework. More people are also working from home, which makes internet service even more necessary.
Smart cities and technology giants such as Google recognize the problem, with Google Fiber's ultra-high speed internet service provided to some low-income residents in Kansas City, and internet service in Austin, Texas. The Google Fiber initiative in Kansas City was controversial because residents were required to pay $300 for a one-time installation fee that resulted in free internet for the next seven years, which proved to be a stumbling block for poor families that couldn't afford the fee, or even installment payments of $25 each.
In Seattle, there are three providers—Comcast, CenturyLink and InterConnection—that offer low-cost, high-speed internet access for residents at about $10 a month. In Kansas City, there's a testbed area in the downtown section that provides free high-speed internet access to all 20,000 residents and businesses. Comcast offers the same program as in Seattle to low-income families throughout its service areas in the US.
Technology, when used for good, has the ability to erase inequality between the poor and the rest of the world. Home internet is as essential of a utility as electricity and running water, as it not only provides people with medical and health information as well as government services and online education, but also with the ability to connect with friends and family.
Three takeaways for TechRepublic readers:
- The FCC announced Wednesday that it will no longer fight to expand broadband service for low-income individuals.
- This means the FCC will once again allow state governments to approve or reject ISP provider applications for low-income service subsidies.
- Internet access is as essential of a utility as electricity or running water, providing people with the ability to job hunt and children with the ability to do research for homework.
- Why Google Fiber missed the mark with free internet (TechRepublic)
- Google Fiber: The smart person's guide (TechRepublic)
- Google Fiber 2.0 targets the city where it will stage its comeback, as AT&T Fiber prepares to go nuclear (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
- Google Fiber is forcing its rivals into offering cheaper, faster service (ZDNet)
- Comcast, Time Warner take on Google Fiber in Kansas City; can the incumbents compete? (TechRepublic)
Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including People, W and Women's Wear Daily.